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Hard-Headed Act to Follow

The Wanda Jackson tribute is every bit as good as can be expected.

 

The insurgent country paean to the queen of rockabilly and 50’s maven of all things innovative, tough, female, and rocking runs the gamut. Generally speaking, cover collections tend to fall to mish-mash. A few songs are studious reinterpretations, a few loosely inspired by the legend’s sound, while the balance fall somewhere in between. Hard-Headed Woman: a Celebration of Wanda Jackson stays consistently interesting due to the Bloodshot label’s iconoclastic nature and, by extension, its artists—one essentially analogous to Jackson’s.

 

Flash back to the South by Southwest music festival in 2002. Kristi Rose (who appears on this collection) and Bloodshot owner Rob Miller sit on a panel with Wanda Jackson and the eventual producer of Hard-Headed Woman, Holly George Warren. Documentary filmmaker Beth Harrington, fresh off directing a film on undiscovered women artists, trumpets Jackson’s music and “my way or no way” attitude as precursor to the punk, psychobilly, and riot grrl movements. Typical to the Wanda-thon, Japan’s all-female all-Ukulele Petty Booka, gush about just how popular her “Fujiyama Mama” is among rock’s intelligentsia in the land of the rising sun. The audience and panel fire back and forth endlessly in regards to how Wanda’s music signifies the visceral in music, the triumph of the gut over calculation and marketing.

 

The resulting Hard-Headed Woman: a Celebration of Wanda Jackson does its best to laud this unsung hero. Let’s begin with the woman who pulled Jackson out of retirement in 1996. Rosie Flores holds that Wanda’s being the “first woman of Rock & Roll, not a sassed-up little girl” was hugely inspirational on her own “rockabilly filly” career. Rosie’s take on “In the Middle of a Heartache” delivers the goods with the love and precision that only a truly like mind could.

 

Indeed, like minds dominate this 21-track collection. But as it should be with supportive friends, growth is expected. A true champion of underground country as host of WFMU’s “Radio Thriftshop,” Laura Cantrell, holds that Wanda “was country’s first rebellious teenage girl and grew into one of the music’s most sophisticated, worldly performers.” Cantrell’s version of “Wasted” is sweetly accurate and puts Cantrell’s money where her mouth is.

 

Like “Wasted,” much of Hard-Headed Woman falls in line with the originals. Carolyn Mark’s “Hot Dog, that Made Him Mad” coupled with her Corn Sister and fellow music scholar, Neko Case’s “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man” make a strong case for eschewing persona, falling in line, and simply embodying Jackson for homage. Wayne “The Train” Hancock’s adds horns and a wonderful steel guitar to Jackson’s biggest tune, “Let’s Have A Party.” The Ranch Girls straddle the line between a straight cover of “If You Don’t Somebody Else Will” and a vital defiance due in equal parts to the subject matter and their Netherlands origin.

 

Like Jesse Dayton’s “Both Sides of the Line,” often the clear-cut cover can be less inspired, relegating the performer to cipher, the wild raucous original to understated background. For the most part, though, Jackson’s independent spirit dominates the proceedings. Nora O’Connor’s charming “Sticks and Stones” is saved from stickiness by Andrew Bird’s fiery fiddling. Candye Kane, Kelly Hogan, and Kim Lenz pepper their takes on Jackson’s tunes with sprinkles of blues rock, jazz, and doo-wop. Robbie Fulks’s “Tears at the Grand Ol’ Opry” balances scholarly reinterpretation with country genuineness his admirers have come to expect. Bloodshot’s MVP, John Rice’s fiddle and steel-guitar expressions of regret and resignation complete Fulks’s renovation amid loving service to the tune.

 

While homage can have some strange elements, some covers are confidently, joyously bizarre, and perfect because of it. Trailer Bride transforms “Fujiyama Mama” into a grim gothic stomp. Melissa Swingle’s appropriately deadpan vocals and pounding organ lend existential angst to, “drank a quart of whiskey/smoked on a pipe/chased it with tobaccy/then shot out the light.”  This brilliant reinterpretation highlights and signifies a new beginning for Jackson.

 

Wanda Jackson is in renaissance. She currently tours and records; the likes of Elvis Costello, Dave Alvin, The Cramps, and half the Bloodshot roster have all felt lucky enough to back her. Last fall’s sold-out show at Martyr’s showcased a woman in her middle years comfortably enjoying similar adulation from fans of rock, rockabilly, and country as well as local country masters like guitarist Joel Paterson and drummer Kevin O’Donnell. The allure of this role model for female rockers, whose fringe shimmy once attracted Elvis’s revelatory crotch for a brief fling way back, has also grown and her confidence was so bold that chilly fall evening in Chicago that local organist Scott Ligon had to step off stage briefly to smooch his girlfriend to assure her Wanda’s flirting was innocent. 

 

Wanda Jackson appears live April 9, 2005 at FitzGerald’s. Hard-Headed Woman: a Celebration of Wanda Jackson, 7.5/10, released 10/26/04.


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